Building to the Baseline or I’m Not Done Yet

The regular posting bug has not left and, though I have much to do today, I’m back at you with the first Razorwise Report for December. Just remember, however, whatever loose rules I had in place for the DBloC are thrown out the window. From here on out, I’ll stick to gaming topics, certainly, but there may not necessarily be a central theme at any given time. I do hope to continue to provide insights a goodly number of you have found useful if not, at the very least, entertaining. (Yes, I do realize I sorta ditched the Under the Influence theme somewhere in the middle of November, but it’s only because I said all I needed to say at the time. If more influences strike me, then I’ll certainly make mention of them as whimsy dictates.)

Today, we’re going to talk about design or, more specifically, mechanical design. These principles apply equally well to whatever system you’re using, be it Savage Worlds, Chivalry & Sorcery, Fate, or Fiasco. It’s building to the baseline. When I say that, you may immediately ask exactly what I’m talking about and that’s entirely reasonable, so in my usual fashion, I’ll throw out a precise definition, and then we’ll amplify it, and call it a day. Ready?

Building to a Baseline is extending out the core mechanics of the rules as needed.

This neat definition hides a lot within it. Doesn’t it? It may also serve to offend those dreamers who wish to reach new heights, new visions, and innovate. Please bear with me. This practical approach is no more stifling than writing haiku, and haiku is deceptively simple in its construction, but you can jam a lot of meaning in those seventeen syllables, believe me. Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let’s go over ways building to a baseline can serve to improve quality, productivity, and improve creativity, in that order.

Improving Quality: As gamers know, there is a lot of variance between the quality of works from system to system, publisher to publisher, and even within product lines themselves. You will note certain publishers produce more quality material than others. They innovate, but they choose when and where they innovate, so what makes the material quality? In my analysis of a lot of game systems, it is by the company strictly adhering to basic tenets it sets forth for itself and, by and large, extending out those sections of the rules which needed to encompass certain gaps in the rules, and not recreating entire new subsystems strictly for the purposes of offering more crunch. By adhering to the core mechanics of what works, the designers can focus on those specific elements needed to amplify, encompass, and enrich the new setting material they have to offer.

Case in point: The Day After Ragnarok by Ken Hite won a Gold Ennie for Best Setting. Why? Because Ken is a master of economy and restraint. He hits you repeatedly with compound shotgun blasts of information and delivers the material in carbon-fiber slugs to boot. The restraint he shows is to the system–mechanics were tweaked ever so slightly to best suit his vision for the property. Ken knows his way around a rules set and adheres to the adage of “if if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Another advantage of just extending out the rules set, rather than rebuilding it in its entirety is it makes the community of a system more likely to cotton to your material right away.

Case in point: Realms of Cthulhu added Sanity into the mix for Savage Worlds. I could’ve gone in a lot of different directions, but I knew by making a system parallel with physical wounds it would be something the player base could absorb very easily. There were a few tricks explored to refine it to its final form to best emulate certain elements, but by cleaving to the core concept of a parallel track, I could focus on refining it.

Improving Productivity: Though you may think this is aimed squarely at designers, it applies equally well to ever gamer who ever decided to create his own rules. Time is valuable. By extending only those things which need it or repurposing material already present, you’re ramping up your output, and can move forward with the confidence the material doesn’t fall apart in playtests (which is never a good thing).

Case in point: Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin took a long time to get out there, so it is somewhat humorous to use as an example (from my perspective), but that is because of the complexities involved with making certain all the materials played well together. A wealth of edges were required to fully realize my vision of the setting. Even throughout the additions, we cleaved to the core. For example, Signature Moves is inspired by Trademark Weapon. It has a similar effect but feeds into an Edge tree and can work in conjunction with Trademark Weapon. Material from Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin did find its way into other materials we’ve released, such as Defining Interests found in Ravaged Earth and Realms of Cthulhu.

Improving Creativity: Setting comes first. Remember that. Mechanics should serve the world material, not the other way around. A lot of folks forget or even ignore that and build the setting and the system in two different spheres, but they are an inextricably tangled relationship. Or they can be. There are also times when creative, new mechanics can inspire a designer to add something to the world he may not have down otherwise, but this is much rarer. For example, in all the settings I’ve worked on, I never let the rules set lead me around by the nose. Certainly, we’ve seen opportunities to envision things or focus on certain aspects in one system over another, and sacrifices must sometime be made for the system sake, but it’s much more of a case of shaping the system to the setting and not vice versa.

Case in Point: RunePunk was my first setting book and first major release. I dropped into first person there, because it was largely my own work. I was new to the community, having no ties whatsoever, but I did a lot of analysis and sorted out how things needed to be done. I made my mantra “cleave to the core rules” even though in its initial development, I felt I needed to innovate. That’s an amateur mistake. If you can craft a setting uniquely your own, people will love it or hate it on its own merits. I was the first to introduce Racial Edges into Savage Worlds. Certainly, I’ll concede Evernight had a few edges which were available only to certain races, but they were not called racial edges.  RunePunk had a broad spectrum of Racial Edges available to the various races, making each member of a particular race even more varied. Others have since gone on to do this. Me? I was inspired by how HARP handled them initially. Everything feeds off itself. My good friend, Clint Black, came in later in the process as a consultant and challenged me to refine things and really helped tighten up the balance and tweak a few things, such as the Arcane Companions, and I am grateful to him for his patience and insights. I’ve done a lot of design work since then, and I make a point to put the setting first. Next time, I’ll talk about Worldbuilding, I think.

If you’ve not read any of these works, you’re in for a treat. If you have, give them a thorough going over with an analytical eye towards development. Remember, building towards a baseline can help you dramatically in your own projects by they for your own group or for the world at large. Now, with looming deadlines on the horizon, I return to my writing, and bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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